The door could have held back an army. It was thicker than the hull of her ship, and the central lock was twice the size of Helene’s head. Passing through it, she felt her unease only grow.

Inside was no better. The room was entirely bare. The walls and floor a matching metallic grey, and clinging to the centre of the ceiling was a squat, almost antiquated camera. Its lens stared directly at Helene. The device seemed to serve only as a reminder to everyone that they were being watched. She had to suppress a shudder. Her eyes kept flickering around the room, hoping to find some detail that might offer a clue as to why she was here, or even what here was. But the room remained bare. There wasn’t even the usual company logo tattooed anywhere. In fact, the only thing that told her this facility belonged to the company was the man currently approaching.

Though it had only been a few years since they last saw one another, Mateus had aged considerably. There were iron grey patches in his hair, a grim set to his lips, and his eyes swam in two dark pockets. He offered a liver-spotted hand as he drew closer.

“I appreciate you coming, Helene,” he said, the shadow of a smile barely crossing his lips. “Though, officially, you’re not here, understood?”

“I guess you’re not going to tell me what this place is then?” she asked, following Mateus as he began leading her down more bare, grey corridors. “It wasn’t even programmed in the Navigation-Dex,” Helene went on, carefully watching her old colleague’s stony face. “I had to enter the co-ordinates manually.”

“When you’re done here,” Mateus said, “your ship’s records will be wiped.”

So, it was a Black Site. Helene knew it couldn’t be anything else, but she was still satisfied to hear it confirmed aloud.

“How’s private practice working out?” Mateus asked. He was staring ahead, and so didn’t see the twitch of annoyance this question provoked. But he must have had some idea. After all, he had known where to find Helene; and that she was in a position to drop everything to answer his call. He also must have seen how she looked. He wasn’t the only one who had changed over the years. “Not too bad,” Helene answered. “How’s Phillipa?”

The corners of her lips twitched up as Mateus rubbed where a wedding band had once sat. “Not too bad,” he murmured back. They stepped into another, smaller room. This one actually looked close to comfortable. There were a few rickety chairs, a stained metal table, and a row of cabinets along the far wall. “Drink?” Mateus asked, grabbing a bottle from one of the cupboards, along with two glasses.

“You didn’t drag me to a top-secret facility just to get drunk, did you?” Helene asked, watching him fill the first glass all the way to the brim.

He took a long draught of the amber liquid, then fixed a pair of blood shot eyes onto her. “Helene, I need your help,” he said.

She took a seat. It had been a long time since she had seen the man this stressed. “Start at the beginning,” she said, momentarily forgetting her bitterness.

Mateus shook his head. “I don’t even know where this shit show began,” he growled, dropping into the chair opposite. “What we’re working on here – what the Company wants to achieve here – it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, understand? And it is this close to collapsing.” She stared at the miniscule sliver of a gap between his thumb and forefinger. She didn’t need that to get an idea of how bad things were. The tumbler full of scotch was a big enough hint.

“Are you able to tell me what you’re working on?” Helene asked, almost instinctively adopting her coaxing, parental tone of voice.

“It’s a project that, if successful, will enable to ships to travel from one part of the galaxy to another, in an instant.”

The woman allowed his words to sink in for a moment. “Are you . . . talking about hyperspace travel?” she asked, wondering how many of those drinks Mateus had already finished.

“I know, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s actually happening, Helene,” he insisted. “We’re practically there, but . . .” he gave a long sigh, anxiously rubbing his chin the way he used to when they worked together. “You have to understand, this project needs to be a success. There have been talks of colonies breaking away from the company.”

Helene felt her eyes roll. “Colonies have been talking about going independent for years now,” she said.

“Yes, but now the directors are taking it seriously,” Mateus said, refilling his glass. “Did you know, on some stations, the workers have actually managed to unionise?”

She was privy to that bit of information. Some of her clients included engineers and pilots, all of whom she had actively encouraged to take action. Just one of the few ways she had found to jab back at the company. That, however, wasn’t something her old colleague needed to know.

“As it stands, if any outpost does try to break away, it would take the Company months to send someone out to fix the situation, and by then it would be too late,” Mateus said, though he sounded as if he was reading off some internal script, and not one he fully believed in. “If we get this project working, we could have someone there in seconds.”

“I’m a therapist,” Helene pointed out. “Unless your magic portal is having an existential crisis, I don’t see how I can help.”

Mateus sighed once more, then pulled a pad from his jacket pocket. He tapped in a long code, then placed it on the table between them.

“Tobias Kershaw,” he said, propping his elbows on the tabletop. “He’s the brains behind this whole project. Came up with the calculations, the designs, even did a few preliminary tests, all on his own, before he turned twenty. If the Company hadn’t scooped him up when they did, he’d be making headlines everywhere by now.”

“A regular little genius,” Helene murmured, like she hadn’t heard stories like this before.

“But, a couple of days ago, he went and did this.” Mateus pushed the pad closer to Helene. As she read, her usual mask of detached indifference slipped away.

“Does he have a history of violence?” Helene asked, seeing anew the weariness in Mateus’ eyes.

“No.”

“Let me guess, you want me to have a ten-minute session, and then come out saying this was all a one-off incident, give him a clean bill of health, just so you can pack him off back to work on your little project?”

Mateus shook his head slowly. “No, the Board can’t look past this one,” he said mournfully. “The night before this . . . incident, Kershaw claims that he made the first successful test of the machine.”

Helene frowned. “I don’t understand?”

“Kershaw claims that he transported himself,” Mateus said. “Don’t you get it? One night he goes through an experimental teleportation device, and then the next day he bludgeons three of his co-workers to death!”

“I see,” she murmured. “You want me to find out if this incident was down to him . . .”

“Or the machine.”

“I’m guessing you have a Nanny Droid around here?” Helene asked, making no effort to hide the disdain in her voice.

Those machines, once only found on the remotest of stations, were now becoming something of a trend for the elite. No more did they need people like her to ease their mental well-being. That left Helene with a clientele who, if they couldn’t afford a Nanny Droid, certainly couldn’t pay her proper rates.

“Two, actually,” Mateus said. “And they both examined him, and both came to the same conclusion: There’s nothing wrong with him.”

Helene frowned. “Seems like a simple conclusion then,” she said, sensing more on the horizon.

“Faith in the Nanny Droids isn’t particularly high these days. You heard about the Adams incident?”

Just rumours, she thought. It was only after the deaths of the station’s entire crew, plus three company inspectors, that the damaged droid’s rampage could be stopped. Helene had seen a lot more business the weeks after that story surfaced.

“Besides,” Mateus went on, “we only have Kershaw’s word that he even used the machine.”

“You don’t have security footage?”

Mateus shook his head. “Footage can be hacked, and then leaked,” he said. “The only cameras are in the entrance, the mess hall, and the containment cell.”

Helene heaved a large, almost dramatic sigh. “And what’s in it for me?” she asked. “What do I get for helping you decide if your pet genius is a lost cause, or if your precious project is a write off?”

“You get a way back in.”

Her heart almost stopped. She looked at Mateus with wide eyes. “What?”

“You’ll get your old job back, but this time with Pearl Level clearance.”

Pearl Level? That would put her only one level below the board of directors. She ran her tongue along her suddenly dry lips. “As if you could get that,” she murmured.

“I have got that,” Mateus said, refilling her glass. “What do you say?”

Even the rosiest of looking paths could conceal a bear trap. “What about Whitlow?” Helene asked, feeling the old pain that name brought her.

“Retired last season,” he replied. “You never have to hear that name again.”

Could she do it?

After having everything snatched away, could she return to the Company? Have that old life back? That old apartment? That old wealth and renown? But still the shadow of Whitlow loomed. He may have gone, but the rest were still the same. Would her pride allow her to step back into that circle?

She almost laughed at that. Her pride had been the first thing they took. Years of living on remote orbital stations, tending to the meagre minds of menial workers had kept that stolen pride from returning. And it was at one of those lowly stations that Mateus had found her. He knew all too well the point she was at. She was only grateful he hadn’t mentioned how quickly she had come running to his call.

The offer wasn’t the only thing tempting her, Helene told herself. It had been years, even long before her fall from grace, that she had come across a case that truly challenged her. One that could satisfy her hunger. Maybe this was the one.

“Well?” Mateus asked.

As if there were any debate about her answer.

“Show me to the patient.”

*

He sat in the centre of the room, a pleasant and inviting smile on his face. He didn’t stand when Helene stepped in; he must have known that any sudden movement would have triggered the sensors.

Aside from the ugly yellowing bruise around his eye, and the fuzzy patches of stubble, Dr Kershaw had a boyishly-young looking face. If she didn’t know he was approaching middle-age, she would have mistaken him for someone freshly into their twenties.

“Good morning, Professor Kershaw,” Helene said, offering her patented soothing smile. “My name is Dr Helene Fidel.”

“Please, call me Toby,” the scientist said, flashing her a charming grin.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the seat opposite him. It was placed several feet away from his. A healthy reminder of the situation she was in. “If it makes you feel more comfortable,” she went on, “you may call me Helene.”

Toby frowned. “What would make you more comfortable?” he asked. “After all, you are the one locked in the room with a man accused of committing quite some violence.” His face darkened for a moment. “By the way, how is Clarissa?”

Helene’s eyes were on the info-pad for a fraction of a second before she answered. “Ms Haymore is still in the infirmary,” she said. The only one of Kershaw’s victims to have survived. But, according to the data on Helene’s lap, that may not last for much longer. 

“You’re concerned for her well-being?” she asked.

The scientist nodded. “Well, obviously!” he said. “We worked together for a long time!”

“And your other colleagues?”

“You know, I’m glad they sent you,” Toby suddenly said, venting a small sigh of relief. “I was getting tired of those robots having a prod of my brain. They have all the works of humanity’s finest psychologists wired into their computers, but they could never comprehend what I’ve experienced.”

“But you think I can understand?”

Tobias Kershaw’s eyes suddenly burned with an alien intensity. “Dr Fidel,” he murmured, “you may be the only person who can understand.”

The ferocity of his glare stunned Helene for a moment. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone. His face was instead lit up by an all too innocent looking smile. “I suppose I’d better start, hadn’t I?”

*

“I was born, like most of us these days, on a small orbital station. This one was so old that most people couldn’t remember what its original designation was. We just all called it The Bucket.

I came from a loving family, but mum died early, when I was just eight. A flu went around the station one season, and she just wasn’t able to recover. Dad spent nearly all his allowance on medicines and treatments, but nothing worked. In the end it was just me and him left.

Because of that, I had to go out on the rounds with dad, he was an engineer, you see. His work took him all over the station, all times of the day. At first, I was just there to hand him his tools, to watch and learn. Eventually, however, I started pointing out things he’d done wrong, suggesting ways to improve his work. Before too long he was the one handing me the tools. The work wasn’t too bad, but I wasn’t left with much time for studying. Instead, if I had a spare moment, I studied online, communicating with tutors from other stations and colonies. Then, much like with my dad, my tutors and I reversed roles. I was the one who would correct their work. They didn’t appreciate it half as much as my old man.

By the time I was sixteen, I was having arguments with tenured professors, submitting papers to Universities, and I had reconfigured the Bucket’s central engine cooling system, keeping the station operational for at least an extra five seasons. I know, I know, it sounds like I’m boasting, and perhaps I am. But I would like you to understand that, ever since I was younger my mind has been . . . open. Open to learning new things, experiencing more, doing more, achieving more! My dad used to say that my brain was too big for the Bucket. Turns out he wasn’t the only one to think that way.

Shortly before my nineteenth birthday, a representative from the Company arrived. It turns out they were there because of an article I had submitted to the Web. It was my first foray into the theory of Hyperspace travel, one that, at the time, I had thought childish and without much potential. The Company thought otherwise. I left the station that night, and taken to a facility not too dissimilar to this one. They rushed me through the formal education procedures, gaining me the first of my PHDs in just two years. With that I became someone the Company could officially employ. Then the real work started.

And it hasn’t stopped for twenty years. I’ve been shepherded from one facility to another, worked with one team after another, written one thesis after another, all in the hopes of bringing Hyperspace travel into reality.

You might make that face, but don’t forget, it wasn’t that long ago in our history that the notion of colonising other planets was mere fantasy. In a few years’ time we’ll all be bored travelling by a Hyperspace gate. Well, maybe you will. Even after two decades I’m still fascinated by the subject.

The move to this station was made three years ago. At the time it was myself, Andre Steadman – he was one of my research partners – and Klaus Romanov, a veteran engineer. Gradually though, more joined us, and our team kept growing. It didn’t occur to us at the time that, when we were moved here, the Company thought it would only be a matter of weeks before our first successful test. Certainly, up to that point, my reports had all been positive – and we really had made some breakthroughs – but I’m sure I had never given any impression that we were close to producing something of substance. But, nevertheless, every three to four months a representative from the Board would pay us a visit, ask when we would be ready to test our prototype, and then inevitably leave disappointed. It hasn’t been easy working under that sort of pressure. Klaus left the team after six months, Andre left not long after that. I was told that they left voluntarily, but a part of me always suspected otherwise. Their replacements shared the same enthusiasm for testing as the Board. Always I would be asked when the first gate would be finished. Always I would have to give them the same answer. None of them lasted longer than three months. I won’t lie, in recent months I’ve been wondering when it would be my turn to be replaced.

Then, finally, we really did have a breakthrough. Twelve weeks ago, I cracked the code – the secret to travelling instantly from one corner of the galaxy to another was mine! When I delivered that report, I swear, twenty-four hours later a whole new engineering crew was delivered. Working off of blueprints designed by myself and Klaus almost a decade ago, they managed to build a prototype of the gate in under a month. I’m not sure if any of them slept, I know I didn’t much. If they don’t offer, please do ask to see the machine. I’m not sure if you’ll appreciate it, but it is a piece of art, believe me. Anyway, weeks passed, and test after test was conducted, but . . . nothing. We sent drones through and they came back with nothing. We took the machine apart and rebuilt it, and still nothing. The Company replaced half my team, and still nothing changed. We must have run a hundred or more tests and not a single one produced a result, not even a negative one. If something had blown up at least we could say we’d achieved something! But no. That’s when I truly began to sense my time was coming to an end. Can you imagine that? The dread that the thing you’ve been working on for most of your life is about to be snatched away? I wouldn’t allow it. I had started this project on my own, it was my theories that had started us down this road, it had to be me that saw it to its end.

There’s a rule here that all tests must be carried out under the supervision of at least three researchers, a team of engineers, and a representative from the Board. Why the last is necessary I’ve never worked out. But, anyway, that usually means that testing can only be carried out during daylight hours. It also means that there are a lot of people in my way, asking questions I don’t want to hear, and offering opinions that are no help. I decided that, if I was going to accomplish anything, I had to ignore that little rule.

As you know from the report, on the night of the twenty-third, I decided to conduct my own private tests. Since the last failure, I’d run the simulations a hundred or so times, and each and every result was the same. The machine should have worked! As the drones were producing nothing, I had no choice. I had to use myself as a test subject. I had to see it for myself. That’s why it had to be done in secret. If one of the board’s lackeys had been lingering around, they would never have agreed. I’m not going to lie and say there was no risk, of course there was, but it was one I was more than willing to take.

How can I describe the sensation? When you first step through it’s like you’re walking through a sheet of ice. There was an intense, shocking cold. I had the sensation of being peeled apart; my finger nails, the hairs on the back of my arms, my eyelids, my gums, even my teeth felt as if they were being teased out. And I remember the faint smell of ammonia burning my sinuses. Then it was gone. Everything was gone. I was on the other side. Or, rather, I wasn’t. Once I had recovered from the discomfort, I realised that I was standing, not in my quarters, which I had aimed the exit gate for, but I was still in the lab.

The despair I felt, it was . . . I . . . could I have a glass of water? Thank you. Sorry, I haven’t spoken for this long in a while. Where was – oh, yes. The machine was a failure. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I had walked in one side, and walked out the other. Besides the discomfort, I had achieved nothing. A part of me wanted to tear the machine apart right there, but another knew that would achieve nothing except hasten my departure from the project. Instead, I decided the simply pretend I had never conducted the experiment. I would return to my quarters, get some rest, and in the morning work with the team in finding out exactly where lay the fault.

However, this never happened. As I was on way back, I noticed a light in the mess hall. You have to understand, I was the only one who was supposed to be awake that late. Even then, I wasn’t officially supposed to up. Could it be an innocent engineer struggling to sleep, or someone who had spied everything I had done? My mind raced, and my anxiety only grew. I had to find out. As quietly as I could, I approached the door and looked in.

What I saw shocked me. This is a top-level security facility. Its co-ordinates have been scrubbed from every map; no one below Level Pearl clearance even knows it exists. Yet, still, a complete stranger was sitting in the mess hall. He wore no uniform, seemed to have no badge, and he looked like no one who had visited the facility before. Nearly all thoughts of my failed test were gone; they were instead consumed by my curiosity. I took a few steps into the room, taking no care to keep the noise down. The man didn’t look up. He had ashy brown hair that reached his shoulders, a light stubble that covered a strong-looking jaw, and, from what I could see from where I stood, pale blue eyes. The clothes he wore were . . . odd. He wore a cream-coloured shirt of some unfamiliar material. It looked soft and almost hand woven. There were no traces of synthetics that I could see. The same went for his trousers, a navy-blue pair of rough looking fabric. And his feet were bare. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to reveal muscular-looking forearms, and the hairs shimmered in the glow of the electric lamp. He was slightly hunched over something in his hands, working away at it with a small knife. The sight of the blade only made me slightly nervous.

‘Do sit down, Tobias,’ the man suddenly said, his voice smooth and warm. ‘I’m not used to people standing over me, and the experience isn’t at all enjoyable.’

Stunned, both by his appearance, and by the fact he knew my name, I obeyed his instruction. Looking back, I don’t think there was any chance of me disobeying, even if I was fully composed.

‘You took longer than I expected,’ the stranger went on.

I was about to answer – or try to, at least – when I finally got a look at what the man was holding. It was wood. Can you believe that? I’ve only ever seen pictures before, and that’s all I thought I would see. But here was a lump of it being held in front of me. It was . . . beautiful. The energy it exudes; the vitalism, the smell of something so organic, so rare . . . and he was carving at it with a knife? I – I almost couldn’t contain myself. How could he take something so wonderful and attack it? To slice it apart and let the shavings fall in a heap at his bare feet. I wanted to snatch it out of his hand and run far away, where he could never ruin it again But, then I met his gaze. His eyes weren’t just blue. They burned like starlight. I couldn’t look at those eyes for a moment longer. Instead, I focussed again on the carven piece in his rough, calloused hands. He chuckled, prompting me to look only as far as his tender, almost paternal smile.

‘Why so glum, Tobias?’ he asked. ‘You should be proud. You had a real success tonight.’

I didn’t often laugh, but that made me snort like an idiot. ‘What success?’ I demanded. ‘The machine still doesn’t work!’ I could feel the old bitterness beginning to burn my chest, then that smile caught my eye. Suddenly, seeing it, I started to feel an unfamiliar calmness.

‘It brought you to me,’ the man said simply.

I remember shaking my head like a fool. ‘It hasn’t brought me anywhere!’ I argued. ‘I’m still on the station. The lab is just down the corridor! My quarters, just a few doors away!’

The stranger frowned playfully, studying the carving in his hand. ‘That’s what you’re seeing?’ he murmured. ‘How disappointing for you.’

His words infuriated me. ‘What are you talking about?’ I suddenly asked, that calmness once more gone. ‘And who are you? How did you get here?!’

‘I didn’t “get here”, Tobias, I have always been here. Waiting.’ I felt my eyes dragged up to meet his own intense stare. There was an amused curl to his lips. ‘And now here you are.’

I wrenched myself free of his gaze, looking towards the door, hoping to see someone, anyone from the team. But the rest of the room was lost in swampy shadows. The only ones in the light were me and this stranger.

‘You’re not making any sense,’ I said, sounding, I’m sure, like a little child. This only seemed to amuse him.

‘All in good time,’ he said, giving me a fatherly pat on the knee. There was a warmth where he touched me, and I felt my fingers inching towards that spot. ‘Tell me, Tobias,’ the man went on, arresting my attention, ‘where do you think you got those brains of yours?’

It was a question, fired out of nowhere, that stumped me. ‘Well,’ I slowly began, ‘a part of it can be down to genealogy; neither of my parents were especially slow, in fact, in some areas, they were impressively knowledgeable. Then another part can come down to simple luck.’

I knew instantly that I had said the wrong thing.

The lamp beside us shuddered, scattering shadows across the man’s face. But his eyes continued to shine. They burned in the dark, and his smile smouldered. ‘The words luck and coincidence are not welcome here, Toby,’ he announced.

I could feel sweat prickling down the back of my neck, the shame swelling up inside of me.

‘Your brains are a gift from me,’ he continued, the blade slowly scraping away at the wood. The shaved curls drifting down between his legs.

Dumbfounded, I could only stare at this man. His rough hands, so much like my father’s, the scattering of stubble across his broad jaw, that thatch of unkempt hair, and of course those magnetic, piercing eyes. ‘Are you trying to say –?’

‘I’m trying to say a lot of things,’ the figure snapped, ‘and it would be easier if I wasn’t constantly interrupted.’ All illusions of good humour were stripped away. Once more I felt my head bowing, desperate to avoid that glare. My eyes unconsciously drifted to the knife held in the man’s fist. ‘Your kind have lost their way,’ he started again, his voice once more tender and soothing. ‘They have abandoned the teachings that helped keep them on the path of light. We, Tobias, must return them to that path. Your intelligence is a gift, and you have used it as I intended. Do not despair, for your machine is a success, and with it we shall begin the work of salvation.’

‘I . . . I don’t understand . . .’ I had never been in a position where I was so lost, so confused. But looking up and seeing his smile, it brought with it a joy I had never felt before.

‘There is a time of great chaos coming,’ he explained. ‘Like children, people will be looking for guidance. Looking for me, through you.’

‘But I’m no one special, I’m just a scientist!’

The Man shook his head slowly, but there was an amused little smirk on his face. ‘Put your faith in me, Tobias,’ he whispered. ‘Together, we can save mankind from itself.’

We spoke for hours. Far longer than should have been possible. He spoke of what was to come, and what part I was to play. I can’t describe how at ease his words put me. At first, the thought of such responsibility threatened to overwhelm me, but knowing that He was there, watching me, guiding me, protecting me, it . . .

I won’t lie, I have often wondered what sort of future I might have. Once the machine was finished, once my life’s work was achieved, what next? That void terrified me. But not anymore. I have purpose again. You can’t imagine what a relief that is.

‘Things may not make sense, Tobias,’ He said, still running the blade carefully along the body of the wood. ‘But, given enough time and patience, everything will become clear.’ Then, after brushing a few shavings from His lap, He placed something on the table. In His hands, that lump of wood had transformed into the shape of a stallion, its front legs raised triumphantly into the air. It took my breath away.

He gifted me with a tender smile, and I knew it was finally time to go. Not that I wanted to. Every part of me ached to stay, but if I did that then how would I be able to do what was needed of me?

Now, this is how I know that I was neither dreaming nor fantasising. What happened was real. I didn’t just wake up, I didn’t simply blink and find myself back in my quarters, no. After I tore myself away, I retraced my steps to the lab, and I went back through the machine. Once more I underwent that sensation of being pulled apart. Oh, by the way, when the actual gate is complete, the hull of your ship will protect you from any similar discomfort.

Sorry, where was I? Yes, yes, of course. Yet again the machine seemingly did nothing, because I stepped back out into the lab. Only, this time, I knew better. I was brimming with excitement; I could have burst from the energy I suddenly felt. I returned to my room, not expecting to sleep for even a minute, but I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next day I woke much later than normal. It was so out of character that I feared someone would notice and begin asking questions. The worries, however, were unfounded. It seemed that, after the previous day’s failure, most of the crew had succumbed to a dark mood. No one had much interest in me. Eager to share the good news, I went hunting for someone, anyone!

Of course, most of the rest you already know. I found the four of them in the lab; Clarissa, Hao, Michael, and Roman. Instantly I knew something was wrong. They were stood around the machine, tools strewn across the floor, and the blueprints Klaus and I had slaved over for years was lain out on the table. Notes had been made across the paper in handwriting that was not mine.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, though in my gut I knew.

‘The Company wants us to go in a different direction with the gate,’ Roman said. He had always been on the side of the Company. Not once had he shown any sign of imagination or original thought.

‘You can’t!’ I objected.

Roman just gave me a dismissive wave.

‘We’ve been working with this design for years now, Toby,’ Clarissa said, trying, I’m sure, to sound soothing. But to me her voice was like nails down a chalkboard. ‘It’s not once shown any promise of working.’

‘But it does work! It does!’

Now, thinking back on it, they had every reason to be sceptical. I would hardly have believed any of them if they had been in my position. But, seeing them shaking their heads, hiding their smirks behind their hands, it only made me furious. ‘Yeah?’ Roman had asked, not having the decency to hide his contempt. ‘Where did you go then, professor?’

That I struggled to answer. ‘Somewhere,’ was all I could lamely say. ‘It looked like here . . .’

This time the ridicule was out in the open, and I could feel an unfamiliar rage swelling inside me. ‘I met someone there! Someone who told me things, told me that, with this gate, we could achieve great things!’

Their looks, at hearing that, changed.

‘Tobias? Is everything okay?’ Clarissa had asked, laying her hand on my shoulder. I remember shaking her off. Her touch, much like her voice, turned my stomach. The sound of all their voices. After hearing Him speak, anything else sounded obscene.

‘Maybe you should go and speak to Mateus,’ Hao suggested.

But I couldn’t do that, because then they would speak to him, and the story they would tell would make me look mad! No, I had to make them understand first. So, I told them everything that had happened. I told them all about the Man, about our conversation, and about my mission. But they wouldn’t listen. They just stared, as if I had lost my mind. That was when he started to laugh. Roman. That talentless, unskilled troll, brayed like the ass that he was. To laugh at me, I didn’t mind that. I had known them all a long time. But Roman wasn’t just ridiculing me, he was also laughing at Him. And . . . I couldn’t take that. It was that sort of mockery and disrespect that had led us so astray; He told me that, if we were to find our salvation, we could no longer tolerate people who treated us that way.

Perhaps there was a better way, after all, even now I don’t condone violence as a first resort. But in the heat of the moment, I had only one choice. I don’t need to tell you what happened next, it’s all in the report that you’ve read. Besides, what fragments I do remember are just a blur. I guess now you’re going to ask if I feel any remorse? And, to be honest, there is a part of me that regrets what I did. As I said, I don’t believe violence is the answer. But, also, I know that there is more at stake, and they threatened everything. What I do regret though is failing Him. I’m not sure what will happen to me now, but I know I won’t be able to do what was asked of me. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive myself for that.”

*

Helene sat, stunned. There was silence in the room for what felt like an age. Finally, realising that he had nothing more to say, she tried to recover. “I . . . I see,” she said, her throat feeling tight and her chest heavy. “Thank you, Tobias, for your time.”

The man offered her a weak, apologetic smile. “I understand it can be a lot to take in,” he said.

That, Helene thought, was probably the biggest understatement she had ever heard. “You have certainly given me a lot to think about,” she conceded. She stood up, eager to make her escape. His voice, however, arrested her once more.

“There is one more thing,” Tobias said, leaning forward slightly.

Helene felt herself grow cold as she looked into his haunted eyes.

“Just before I left,” the scientist went on, “He told me something. He said that I would soon meet a woman from outside the facility, and that when I did, I was to pass on a message.”

Her stomach began to twist and bitterness flooded her mouth. Helen could barely raise her voice above a whisper to ask: “What did He say?”

“’There was nothing you could do to save the Whitlow boy.’”

Before her legs could give way, Helene hurried out of the room. When the door once more locked behind her, she collapsed against it and tried to calm her galloping heart.

“You all right?”

Mateus was leaning against the opposite wall, his face looking five years older than when she had last seen him.

“How long have you been there?” Helene asked, straightening up and trying to look composed.

“Not long,” he said. “I just came to let you know they’re here.”

She didn’t need telling who he meant. She already knew.

*

There were three people waiting in the mess hall, and of the trio only one looked important. Helene felt the bile sting the back of her throat as she recognised the enormous man.

“Howard Patterson,” Mateus said, offering a hand whilst bowing his head slightly, “this is Dr Helene Fidel.”

Patterson. How could she ever forget? He, along with Whitlow and another board member, Ingrid Bowles, had chaired her hearing panel. Together they had stripped her of her position, title, and future. There wasn’t even a flicker of recognition on Patterson’s oily face. He offered her a bland smile that quickly vanished.

“Let’s cut straight to the chase,” he stated, landing heavily on a seat. “What’s the verdict?”

Helene’s eyes met Mateus’. His offer echoed in her mind. All she had to do was say the magic words and her life was returned to her. She shifted awkwardly; Patterson was staring at her with heavy-lidded eyes.

“Professor Kershaw clearly suffers from an acute case of paranoia,” Helene said, adopting a clipped, impersonal tone. “He has also endured a vast amount of stress in recent months –”

“Are we saying that a bit of stress drove this man to kill four of his colleagues?” This comment came from a bespectacled young man standing by Patterson’s side. Obviously, the board member’s PA. A person, in other words, of no importance.

“Four?” Helene said, focussing on the only word that mattered.

“Clarissa Haymore died two hours ago,” Mateus said without emotion.

“Never mind all that!” Patterson snapped. “What about the machine?! The man said he used it!”

“We were threatening to change his design,” Mateus said. “He could have just made that claim in the hopes of stopping us.”

“Well, if it worked, where did he go?” The board member turned his gaze back onto Helene. “What did he tell you?”

The psychiatrist shifted uncomfortably, unsure of how to word her response. “He claims,” she began tentatively, “that he visited a place that looked similar to here, however,” she added quickly, cutting off the questions she could already see forming, “he states that he . . . met with someone.” The same look of confusion that had been on her face was reflected now on the four before her. “The way Kershaw described Him, it would appear that He was some sort of . . . higher power.”

There was silence for a moment. Helene felt her face growing hotter. She had only relayed what she heard, but saying it made her feel like a fool. After what felt like an age, Patterson burst into peals of laughter.

“Thank goodness!” he exclaimed. “The man’s a complete loon! He had tea with God? Who’d believe such crap?”

“Religious fancies are still fairly common in the more remote colonies,” Patterson’s aide diplomatically said, though he too wore a sneer.

“I’ve heard all I need to hear,” Patterson declared, slapping his thigh and smiling widely. “Thanks to the testimony of our eminent psychologist, we can confirm that Professor Kershaw’s violence was brought on by stress, and a long festering paranoia that led to vivid hallucinations.” The board member fixed his grin on each individual, as if daring any of them to argue. Although she felt sick to her stomach, Helene was hardly going to jeopardise her future now. “Mateus,” Patterson barked, beckoning over the until now silent third member of his party. “This is Professor Hinamori, she’ll be taking over this project.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the mouse-faced young woman said.

“Pleasure’s all mine,” Mateus said, looking close to vomiting.

“How long do you think it’ll be before the machine’s up and running?” Patterson growled.

Hinamori looked up at him with barely concealed terror. “I – I was going over Professor Kershaw’s notes and, as far as I could see, there’s no reason why the machine isn’t working already!”

“But it’s not,” the board member stated. “That’s the problem we’re having. Understand?”

“Right, right, yes, sorry. In – in that case, it should only be a few weeks, I believe.”

“Excellent news!” Patterson slapped her on the back. “The rest of the board will be thrilled to hear that! I’ll be frank with all of you,” he went on, adopting a sombre tone. “A time of great chaos is coming.”

Helene reacted with a violent jolt at hearing those words. Fortunately, no one paid her the slightest attention. With vivid clarity she saw Kershaw’s bruised face repeating that same phrase.

“The Cruemann Haines family has suffered some hard blows recently, but with this new Hyperspace gateway, and the first new colony in almost nineteen seasons –”

“That information hasn’t been made public yet, sir!”

“What does that matter? It’s not as if anyone hear is going to start spilling secrets, are they?” Once more he fixed them all that threatening smile. “Anyway, as I was saying, things may be bumpy for a short time, but once these exciting projects are complete, a brighter future awaits us all!” A pensive look stole over his face. “We really ought to come up with a name for this device,” he mused, almost to himself. “The Kershaw Gate, perhaps?”

“The families of his victims may object to that, sir,” Patterson’s assistant murmured.

“How about the Cruemann Haines Gateway?”

“Smacks of narcissism, sir.”

Patterson frowned for a moment, then waved it away. “I’m sure we’ll think of something. Good work again, Mateus. That vacant seat on the board is as good as yours.” The man then rounded on Helene. This time there was a suspicious gleam in his eyes. “Fidel, eh?” he said.

“That’s right,” Helene said. This is it, she thought. He’ll have remembered by now, and no matter what was promised, she’ll be hurled back into the mires of irrelevance.

“I’ll have to remember that name,” Patterson said, gifting her with a warm smile. “After that Adams affair, my partner absolutely will not go near our Nanny Droid. I’m sure I’ll be in need of someone trustworthy.”

With that, Patterson and his assistant were gone.

*

It was much like Kershaw said; all Helene had to do was ask, and Mateus was more than happy to let her see the machine. And, also like the professor said, it was a work of art. Well, perhaps that was pushing it a little far, but it certainly took Helene’s breath away.

The main gate itself was made up of two metallic, triangular frames, wreathed in cables. The front part was nine feet tall, and the right way up; whilst the back structure was slightly larger and stood upside down. Helene could even now imagine the final product, hundreds of miles wide, stationed in space. To the approaching traveller it would look like another star.

Mateus, after accompanying her into the lab, had excused himself. With the Kershaw matter wrapped up, there was now even more for him to see to. That left Helene alone. Her thoughts drifted to the scientist. For a man who had spoken of feeling remorse, she had only seen a strange placidity in his manner. A man who was encumbered with two decades of expectation and stress, was the calmest she had ever met. She tried not to think about what would happen to him next.

Instead, she tried to focus on her own future. She was back in from the cold. No longer would she be confined to remote outposts with no prospects. She could return to her home on Earth Prime. And yet, she felt nothing at this news. If she had learned one thing in her years of exile, it was that the minds of the lowliest worker and of the highest-ranking company member were much the same. She had a need, she realised, that even a Pearl level clearance could not satisfy.

 Her eyes drifted back to the silent frame of Kershaw’s machine. Surely a faith that could only spread itself through fear and violence was the very definition of madness? But she thought again of the sense of ease he had spoken of. Could it all have been his imagination? If so, how could she explain his knowledge of Whitlow’s son? His suicide had been widely reported, but her involvement as his therapist had been kept out of the news. After all, the only one who had blamed her for his death had been the boy’s father. Could Mateus have mentioned it? Was that how Tobias had come to know? Why would he do such a thing? How would it even come into conversation? If not . . . there was only one alternative that she could think of. After everything that Kershaw had gone through, the years of hard work and repeated failure, the fears of the company’s wrath, the violent nature of his crime, how had he been able to exude such calmness?

Helene found herself approaching the controls to the machine, her fingers reaching out. In the end, there could only be one way to find out.

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